Lowering the limit: How allowing 15 mph zones could save lives in Virginia

March 11, 2021 12:02 am

A speed limit sign in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Just as speed limits set a maximum velocity for drivers, so too the commonwealth establishes a minimum speed limit for localities. Currently, any city or county looking to slow traffic in a busy shopping district or on a quiet residential street can go no lower than 25 mph.

A bill passed during this year’s General Assembly session, however, would change that, permitting posted speed limits to drop as low as 15 mph. Ten miles per hour difference may not seem huge, but for pedestrian safety advocates and the families of victims of traffic collisions, the change could mean the difference between life and death.

Honoring Aajah

A combination of blinding sunlight and excessive speed caused the crash which took Aajah Rosemond’s life while she was walking to the store last fall. Hoping to prevent similar future tragedies, the Richmond teenager’s family approached Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, with a request to help lower speed limits in their Southside neighborhood. The resulting HB 1903 “authorizes local governing bodies to reduce the speed limit to less than 25 miles per hour, but not less than 15 miles per hour, in a business district or residence district.”

“Aajah’s story is unfortunately not uncommon,” Carr said, referencing Virginia’s rapidly increasing pedestrian death rate over the last decade. “In 2019, we hit a new record number of pedestrian deaths and, despite the reduction in driving during the pandemic, speeding fatalities increased. We had 123 pedestrian fatalities in 2020. One in six people killed on Virginia’s roads is on foot now.”

For Brantley Tyndall, the director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA — a Richmond-based pedestrian and cyclist advocacy program, the connection between higher speeds and increasing danger to pedestrians is equally clear. “Because of the pandemic there was much less congestion so people drove faster,” he said. “We saw a 12.5 percent jump in speeding-related fatalities last year but fewer crashes which means crashes have gotten more deadly, especially for people on foot.”

The increased danger posed by drivers didn’t go unnoticed among Carr’s constituents. “There was just a kind of sense of pedestrians being more at risk, so this seemed like the right time to bring lowering speed limits forward,” she said.

Local limits

Virginia localities’ lack of authority to set their own minimum speed is not unique to the commonwealth, according to Angie Schmitt, a planning consultant and author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. “Most cities in the United States don’t have direct control over their speed limits. That’s the norm.”

Across the United States speed limits often cannot go any lower than 25 mph with a few notable exceptions. Localities in New York fought for and won the right to set their own minimum speed limits. The cities of Portland, Oregon and Boston reduced their standard citywide speed limit to 20 mph. In accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, countries ranging from India to Mexico have devolved such powers to localities.

“Folks often think that just changing the signs won’t make any difference, but that’s not true,” Schmitt said. “Research shows lower speed limits reduce average speeds. Lowering the speed people are struck by even just 5 mph can make a huge difference, especially if the victim is older. Given the U.S. population is getting older, this is an increasingly important change states and localities can make to improve safety.”

Since speed is the number one predictor of the severity of a car crash, advocates believe the arguments in favor of 15 mph should be clear. “People walk the most to school, a local business, or in their neighborhoods,” Tyndall said. “If we can lower speeds, we can lower impact probabilities and keep people safer in those areas where people are most vulnerable. This isn’t a one-size fits all tool, but it’s a necessary tool localities need to improve safety.”

Pedestrian politics

HB 1903’s 93-6 vote in favor on the House floor reflected the bipartisan appeal of the approach; however, the bill barely survived the more conservative Senate. “This legislation gives localities greater power which is generally heralded as a conservative principle, but some may have also seen this as a move against car culture which I think complicates the politics,” said Tyndall. “Compared to the House, the Senate seemed more motivated to maintain a fast driving experience over reducing crash rates, crash severity and fatalities due to speeding.”

Backing the bill was a long list of organizations including road safety outfits like NoVA Families for Safer Streets and Tyndall’s Bike Walk RVA as well as locality-led groups such as the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties.

“This is just optional, it’s not a mandate,” Carr said. “No one lobbied against this bill, but some people just don’t like being told what to do. Because it’s permissive, it makes it a lot easier for folks to vote for it since it leaves it up to localities to decide.”

With the bill now headed to the governor’s desk, the true impact of the new law will be left up to localities. The jurisdictions most likely to act on their new permissive powers are the City of Richmond who had the bill on their legislative wish list this year, the commonwealth’s two other Vision Zero cities of Norfolk and Alexandria which have set out zero traffic deaths as an official policy goal, and the ever unique Floyd County, which testified in favor.

Beyond which local officials have expressed interest in the legal change, Tyndall sees this as an important addition to the arsenal of local advocates asking for safer streets. “This isn’t just a tool for localities to use, this is a tool residents of a locality can use to ask for this from their local leaders,” he said. “Now they can say, ‘I need a lower speed on my street and know that local leaders have the power to do that.’”

Although it may take time for such people-powered pushes towards greater pedestrian safety to take root, the fact that regular Virginians can now have a voice in the matter is enough for advocates like Schmitt: “Why shouldn’t localities and residents have a say in what the speed limit is on their streets?”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.